Chapter 9: Mystery's Coda

"Saerk Farrahd was innocent of Moira Delryn's death," I said. The mood of the wedding reception could best be described as subdued, despite the violet-flowered cake in eight tiers and strong lemon-flavoured tea. "The truth, surely... And Roenall, he couldn't have done it; it was before Nalia's engagement..."

"Yes," Xzar said, examining a scone with strawberry jam and cream on its back that formed the shape of a butterfly. "That's the problem with the truth. Nobody believes you when you say it. You might as well be mad. Could I help you with some tea, Lady Delcia? I observe you take it white with one sugar and extra lemon."

The old woman sitting by herself was Nalia's aunt, still crackling with a stiff-backed formality and with scarce a hair out of place despite the attack. According to Nalia she had been one of those to disapprove of the wedding, but she sat down and contrived to keep herself well supplied with refreshments.

"My proper title," she said. "Some young fools have been addressing me as Lady Caan. At last someone with a proper sense of the rightness of place. Be quick about it, young man. And don't gobble down that ham sandwich where I can see it, peasant." The deeply set black eyes in the wrinkled face flickered across me with more force to them than the most dark-hearted of demiliches giving cold stares from unknown crypts, and I took a step back.

"A pleasure to help you, my lady!" Xzar beamed, which with his tattoos returned to his face was perhaps broader a grin than he intended. "Not too hot or too cold? Excellent. You enjoy fine art, don't you, Lady Delcia?"

She raised quill-thin eyebrows, jet black despite her red-brown wig of hair. "I do not discuss my hobbies with the lower class."

"But Monty's seen it," Xzar continued. "In your front room. There's a picture painted by Jean-Baptiste Arabellandry, Young Girl With Baby Musk-Ox Wearing A Silly Scarf In Springtime, or something along those lines. The artist sells for above fifty thousand danters. And yet your income is supposed a mere seven hundred a year, my lady."

Lady Delcia's lips thinned still further, but she said nothing. Her clothing was correct for a woman of her rank and wealth; her boots only scuffed slightly, as they should be after the events of the day; her jewellery subtle and relatively plain. I could detect nothing untoward about her, and perhaps that was the strange thing in itself.

"Tell me, have you had any burglaries within the past three days? Nothing missing?" Xzar said. "Call it asking professionally; sometimes my colleagues and I do take on a case of that sort of thing."

"No, indeed, young man." Lady Delcia laid her china teacup in her saucer with a final sort of soft clink. "I should notice if liberties were taken with my possessions."

"That's all right then," Xzar said, waving the butterfly scone through the air. "One of my colleagues prefers it when we have scruples this way, and besides I thought it might save Monty's life. You're related to a lot of the other noble families, aren't you?"

"Naturally," Lady Delcia said steadily. "Please explain why you're harassing me like this, peasant."

"It was like a...triangle," Xzar said, cream from the scone on his chin. "If this cream puff here is one corner and the orange almond tartlet is another, and the mint macaroon—those are very good—is the third; and in another triangle the small frilled chicken sandwich with the crusts cut off is the first and the passionfruit gateau is the second—then you watch where they cut over each other. Triangulation, all according to standard geometrical principles. You agree?"

"Please, I was raised as a lady. Higher mathematics is an inappropriate subject for proper young girls." Lady Delcia smiled as if he amused her; her hands were neatly folded across each other. At the top of her purse a fragment of embroiderer's linen hung slightly out, a fernlike shape sewn upon it where each new layer of leaves represented a perfectly scaled version of the first, down to a size impossible to see without a gnome's glass.

"Yet that's a beautiful fractal you've sewn there," Xzar said. "It takes rather a lot of cleverness to get that sort of principle exactly right. Once I read a book about asteroids and their theoretical dynamics, the mathematics splendid and perfect and the pinpricks under every forty-fifth word such a paen of inspired melody to the rabbits, and perhaps it was that in the first place that gave me the urge to discover the truth of mysteries. The Dynamics of an Asteroid, that was it."

"You're a wizard; I'm sure you read any number of books, but I am not an institution for the discussion of them," Lady Delcia said calmly.

"Anyway, I was looking for connections to Recioa; to de'Arnise; to Roenall; and to Delryn, someone who would have known where Cor Delryn would blame his daughter's death. Someone who overlapped. Someone who is related to almost of all the Athkatlan noble families. Caan was where the points crossed over."

"Do you mean some peasant-like insult of inbreeding, young man? I'd expected you to have an original mind."

"No." Xzar laid down the cream puff on the tablecloth. "What clinched it was Moira Delryn's talents, really. You were her aunt as well as Nalia's."

"Her cousin, in fact; aunt only as informal courtesy. The poor girl. I sought to give her and her unfortunate father occasional advice." Lady Delcia drew an embroidered handkerchief as if it were a weapon.

"She and her maid—a dressmaker's daughter named Elodie, by the way—were both killed, so that did suggest it was someone who didn't know her family too well. They could have found a time when she was alone, after all. So I suspect the ostensible reason Moira Delryn died was for her father's gambling debts. He owed money; the leader of a certain criminal organisation chose not to lift a hand to prevent her murder; and then, at a comfortable arms'-length, a chain of events was set off that would have only been predictable to one who was close to her family," Xzar said. A sharp tone crept into his voice. "I think you know that one well, my lady.

"Saerk Farrahd dealt in lotus; Cor Delryn would blame him for the death and send his son Anomen for revenge; Farrahd's empire would crumble; and because Cor would only have an interest in the other portions of it—another organisation could then triumph over Farrahd for good. The coachman was another clue; from Farrahd to Delryn and then to the third party who employed him in the sort of criminal activities to which he was accustomed," Xzar said. "And the Tapestry reigns over the criminal underworld."

"A fairy story, I'm afraid, my dear young man," Lady Delcia said cordially. "It would be tremendously unladylike to take an interest in such things."

"And made use of the names and sigils of other noble estates to muddy the waters and select retirement homes for paid assassins," Xzar said. "I wonder if the specific character who slew Moira Delryn and the young lady attending her lives peaceably on? Perhaps even a de'Arnise farm this time. Magery runs in families, after all.

"And then with your niece's wedding you knew you should suffer a lack of control. Viconia DeVir failed; your acquaintance Charis Roenall and her son failed. All still a comfortable distance away. One of the Tapestry's pawns seems to want her freedom from you and gave us warning from the start, but I'll leave you to wonder which one. Or if I'm lying. But the new Baron de'Arnise is now safely wed."

"The de'Arnise estate has suffered much from trolls and other reversals," Lady Delcia said, and this time her sunken eyes were black marbles in her reptilian-like face. "Isn't there a mistake in your false story that one should have a particular desire to gain it?"

"Forgive me," Xzar said, and dipped a pine-nut bryndon in his own cup of tea. "I shouldn't have assumed you play in any other fashion than to win. Nalia was powerful enough to win the day; a loose force of illithids in the city may evolve into a separate power if they gain victories and subvert the populace, whereas a shattered force of illithids seeking a patron to save themselves would be useful tools... If, that is, the attackers had not been prevented from escaping." The bryndon fell apart in the liquid, and he shifted his attention to picking out its soggy pieces one by one. "Why do they make these little cakes to fall apart as easily as kobold spleens?"

"Or if the attackers had any reserve forces," I blurted out, which brought both pairs of eyes to turn to me, Lady Delcia's blank dark stare and the piercing green gaze of my friend.

"By the military stance, the slight limp, the foreign buttons mending your shirt and the tinge to your accent I'd wonder if you are a veteran of the Tethyrian wars, young person," Lady Delcia said. "Or rather, my niece Nalia does like to gossip about the miscellaneous vermin and peasants she attempts to donate employment charity toward. As you know, she would never stoop to believe low gossip in return upon her family." She stood, arranging her rounded shoulders below her thick, dusty shawl. "Do pass my regards to her," she said. "A pearl to you, common ore." She walked with dignity toward the door.

"Sooner or later we'll play another game, you and I," Xzar said. "And I think I'd enjoy it, if..."

And the face of Moira Delryn rose in my mind; and the name of Elodie her maid, who had once loved to dance.

"If not for what will come during its storms."

But Lady Delcia gave no flicker of regret or guilt, and we stood powerless to stop her from the door.

"Not even magery can tell that, young man. Butler, summon my carriage."

Montaron caught us up; I saw at least two jellied applecakes in the pockets of his coat, and a stray dahlia from Alora's bouquet stuck to the back of his neck.

"And so the game begins once more." Xzar drank from the teacup. "If we leave within the next hour and catch a hackney, we'll arrive at the Five Flagons in time for the play tonight."

the end—for now?